What the arrest of immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas says about Minnesota immigration policy

(Photo by Knight Foundation, published under Creative Commons license)

On October 5, a Minnesota state trooper arrested journalist Jose Antonio Vargas for driving with an invalid ID in Minneapolis. His arrest raises the question: Are local police going after undocumented immigrants?

Local police and state patrol representatives say no, but a complex web of federal, state and local policies leaves local officers ensnared in immigration enforcement.

Pulitzer prize winner Vargas came out a year ago as an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in the New York Times. He continues to live in the country and now works as an activist for immigrant issues. His arrest in Minnesota highlights several local policies that impact immigrants around the state.

One, he was arrested for not having a valid driver’s license, something that undocumented immigrants in Minnesota cannot get.

Two, he was sent to a Hennepin County jail that participates in Secure Communities, a program that Immigration and Customs Enforcement required Minnesota to start implementing last February. The system helps ICE flag and detain violators of immigration law.

Finally, Vargas was arrested in Minneapolis by a state trooper. Minneapolis police work under a municipal separation ordinance that says, ““Public safety officials shall not undertake any law enforcement action for the purpose of detecting the presence of undocumented persons, or to verify immigration status.”

State troopers don’t have to follow the rule. But since Minneapolis police also sometimes arrest drivers for having invalid licenses, a municipal cop may have done the same thing.

Secure(?) Communities

The newest immigration policy to hit Minnesota is Secure Communities. The program simplifies information sharing between jails and ICE. Since February, fingerprints supplied by each person booked in Minnesota jails are sent to the Department of Homeland Security, which runs a check on the fingerprint owner’s immigration status.

If it’s questionable, ICE may issue a detainer that tells the jail to hold the individual for 48 hours. In the meantime, ICE may take custody of the suspect and start the deportation process.

Officially, ICE focuses on individuals who have committed serious crimes or multiple immigration violations. In June 2011, ICE director John Morton issued a memo saying that ICE officials should exercise discretion in pursuing immigration cases, taking into consideration family situations, time spent in the country and health conditions. A separate memo described which immigrants are top priority.

In Vargas’s case, although ICE was contacted, officials did not issue a detainer, saying he was low priority. Hennepin County released Vargas the day of his arrest.

Numbers on ICE’s web site indicate 55 percent of people deported last year were criminal offenders, 20 percent repeat immigration violators, 12 percent border removals and 5 percent immigration fugitives. Only 10 percent fell outside of ICE’s priority list.

Virgil Wiebe, director of St. Thomas University’s Immigration Law Practice Group, and his students are processing ICE data from the last year that will tell them, in more detail, how Minnesota deportees were picked up and processed by ICE. He said lawyers he works with on the Minnesota Detention Project continue to encounter people who were arrested and flagged by ICE for violations like driving without a license.

Anecdotally, Minnesota Immigrant Law Center director John Keller said local immigration lawyers have noted an increase in cases involving people whose only encounter with law enforcement was a traffic stop.

Some opt out

Until recently, the Department of Homeland Security indicated that Secure Communities was voluntary. In the past year the department changed its position, saying participation is required. In February, ICE required all Minnesota counties to implement Secure Communities.

In some communities, leaders are questioning ICE’s right to mandate participation. Last week, Los Angeles chief of police Charlie Beck announced he will not honor ICE detainers for individuals who commit low-level crimes.

In theory, that could happen here, too, but representatives from the Minneapolis police department said the decision probably couldn’t come from the police chief, since the county runs the jail, not the city.

It would likely have to come from someone like Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who encouraged implementation of Secure Communities even before it was required. Sheriff’s office public information officer Lisa Kiava told the Daily Planet, “Secure Communities focuses resources on identifying and removing serious offenders. This is an important safety goal.”

Police and ICE hand in hand?

“I believe that Secure Communities increases the perception in immigrant communities that police and ICE are working hand in hand,” Keller said. “It makes community policing and beat cop work in integrated neighborhoods and communities all that much more challenging when a victim of domestic violence would prefer to remain a victim, or not report violence to her or his child, who has no reason to fear police but for [Secure Communities].”

Minneapolis and St. Paul have separation ordinances that prevent police from acting as immigration enforcers. The purpose of the ordinances is to cultivate trust between police and the communities they serve.

“Good intelligence and good, strong relationships are the key to keeping our streets safe,” said St. Paul Assistant Chief Bill Martinez. “We don’t want to become the law enforcers of federal immigration. It would set our community policing efforts and our partnerships back decades.”

“The reason for the ordinances is increased the more prevalent Secure Communities is, or appears to be,” Keller said.

In April, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill that would nullify separation ordinances. The bill did not become law, however.

Driving without a license

It was a state trooper who pulled Vargas over, so the ordinance didn’t apply in his case. Minneapolis police sergeant Stephen McCarty said the ordinance may not have mattered.

The ordinance doesn’t prevent Minneapolis police from arresting a driver for lacking a valid license. McCarty said if a Minneapolis officer believes that a driver with no license will not respond to a citation, he or she may take the individual to jail.

Vargas’s ID was cancelled and flagged for potential fraud, so Minneapolis police may have done the same thing that the state trooper did.

In Minnesota, most undocumented immigrants have no way to obtain a state ID.

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.


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Please give all the facts, so readers can have full context


You omitted at least two significant facts: a) Vargas was stopped because the trooper observed him wearing headphones, which is against the law in MN; b) the license check by the trooper showed that the license Vargas carried might have been involved in fraudulent activity. By omitting these facts, you mislead some readers to conclude that Vargas was arrested simply for lack of documentation. Fox News engages in these ploys - omitting important facts, to sensationalize and create bias. I expect a higher standard from the Daily Planet. Have trust in your readers. Give them the full story. Don't try to bias them.


I thought anyone caught driving without a valid drivers license gets arrested? He was arrested because of that- not because he was in this country illegally. Or pehaps I am a bit slow. Many US citizens(one or two I know of from personal experience) are arrested everyday for driving with no valid license- and often are taken into custody if things are a little suspect- even as minor as an address incinsistency, and this is for peole who ARE here legally.

The writers ability to understand complex issues such as Jose's is apparent- and akin to the opposite kneejerk jounalism you would see from Fox news- just as bad but from the left. The bigger vision is missed for the "easy" call- which is most often wrong.

He was arrested because he was driving without a license which he unfortumately is not able to attain because of his immigration status.  The officer who arrested him could have cared less what his citizenship status was-(maybe not the same story in AZ) he was acting on the fact that Jose had no license, and police generally are not to keen on that. It would be fair to say he was targeted for arrest for driving with no license- his illegal status is just why he was not able to obtain a license. He is still in a crappy situation- but there is certainly no conspiracy against him. You can be certain if he was from the middle east and here illegally, his detention would have been a bit longer- and then the targeting claims could have more validity.